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In Development – A 4% Chance of Awesome

I’m not much for best-case scenarios.

You might say I tend to look at “average-case” scenarios most of the time. When I’m checking out a new card or deck, I think of it in terms of what it’s going to do most of the time, rather than the nut draw or when the deck falls apart. As a consequence, I’m still a little surprised when my Dredge deck yields up a first-turn kill. I know it’s a possibility, but since it’s not the typical result, I don’t build my plans around it.

However.

Sometimes the best case can be powerful enough to warrant a legitimate evaluation.

This week I’m going to do just that, taking a look at everyone’s favorite “Leyline of Llanowar” from New Phyrexia, [card]Chancellor of the Tangle[/card]. Is it worth running? How often will it give you that broken opening turn you crave?

We’ll see.

Running the Chancellor math

Before we do anything else, let’s check in on Chancellor of the Tangle one more time.

I’ve helpfully noted the relevant text.

Of the various “Leyline” effects on the New Phyrexia Chancellors, this one is probably the easiest to see the utility of. That said, I’m kind of an “average-case” thinker on these things, so I looked at Chancellor of the Tangle, recalled my experience with all the other Leylines in the game, and thought, “I probably wouldn’t want to run that.”

But that’s hardly a considered opinion. Do we want to run Chancellor? If so, why?

Considering the best case

The clear best-case scenario with Chancellor of the Tangle is to be running one in a deck that also features [card]Fauna Shaman[/card] and to then hit the paired Fauna Shaman plus Tangle opener.

Suddenly, you have a first-turn Fauna Shaman and something to pitch to it starting on your second turn. That is, in a word, spectacular.

Other creditable options include hitting a first-turn [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] to fling out a second-turn [card]Batterskull[/card], getting a first-turn [card]Squadron Hawk[/card] with [card]Vengevine[/card]s in hand to fill your graveyard, or even enabling a first-turn [card]Lotus Cobra[/card] into a second-turn [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card].

As far as best-case scenarios go, these are all pretty solid.

In a way, evaluating whether or not we want to play Chancellor of the Tangle is a lot like evaluating a financial investment – at least, evaluation in the style of Taleb. We want to consider the possible outcomes, including the upside and the downside. We’ll look at the odds later, but in this case, the upside is clearly pretty good across a wide variety of cases.

For the record, the moderate and worst cases

If the best case is “some awesome two drop on turn one,” then what’s the “okay” case? What’s the “worst” case?

The middle case is probably having the Chancellor in hand on turn one and using it to cough up two one-drops instead of an awesome two-drop. This is significantly less exciting than hitting one of those stellar two drops, but is still pretty sweet in terms of having four mana on turn four, as long as no one [card lightning bolt]Bolts[/card] your [card birds of paradise]Birds[/card].

The worst case involves having a Chancellor during most other turns after the first, or having a Chancellor in your opening hand and nothing to accelerate out with it.

So that’s our three cases, and maybe we already have an opinion about how good or bad each one is. But let’s leave all that aside for now and start asking the most important question in deciding whether to Chancellor it up or not.

What are the odds?

Opening hands, mulligans, and Chancellors

So let’s start with a basic question. If we run some Chancellors in our deck, how likely are we to have them in our opening hand?

If you just consider seven-card opening hands with workable mana, the odds look like this depending on how many copies of Chancellor you have in the deck:

Topping out at 29% isn’t so exciting. We are, of course, allowed to mulligan. If we allow mulls to six, then the odds look like this:

Okay, so that’s a 44% chance of hitting one or more Chancellors in our opening hand if we let ourselves mulligan to six.

Not bad, right?

Well, that’s actually not the end of the story.

Gambling on the nut draw

Having a Chancellor in our opening hand is the cost of entry here, and it coincides with reasonable mana about 44% of the time. But the actual goal here is to have a Chancellor in hand and use it to power out that killer first-turn Fauna Shaman. How likely is that?

…and is there anyway we can reframe our thinking to improve those odds?

The Fauna Shaman coincidence

Our basic Fauna Shaman math is exactly the same as the basic Chancellor math, of course. If we run four copies of Fauna Shaman, the odds on hitting a Fauna Shaman in your opening hand are the exact same as those for hitting a Chancellor.

But what we really want is a Chancellor and a Fauna Shaman at the same time.

If you run four copies each of Chancellor and Fauna Shaman, how often will you draw an opening hand of seven cards with at least one of each and reasonable mana?

That’s just north of a one in ten shot.

If we let ourselves mulligan to six in the hunt for a Chancellor, then the odds look like this:

That brings us up to about one in six.

That’s perhaps 1-2 games across the course of a typical MTGO Daily or FNM, or 3 or so games during the Swiss portion of a PTQ or other large event.

Let’s just file those numbers away in the back of our head for now. We’ll check in on how valuable it is to be able to hit your best case one, two, or three times in a tournament (on average). In the meantime, we might want to ask if we can somehow expand our odds of hitting our best case.

Changing your perspective

No, this is not suddenly an article about stacking your deck. As long as we’re sticking to four Chancellors and four copies of Fauna Shaman, the likelihood of hitting both in hand won’t creep up past that 16%.

But think back to that laundry list of potentially exciting two-mana cards that we opened with. A lot of them want to live in the same deck. The W/G Fauna Shaman decks I’ve been running in Standard lately run Fauna Shaman, [card]Lotus Cobra[/card], [card]Squadron Hawk[/card], and [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card]…and one way or another, most of these are pretty exciting turn one plays.

Given that, we can reframe our question. What if we only care about hitting a Chancellor and any one of our cool two drops in our opening hand? If we’re running a Fauna Shaman build that also has four copies of Stoneforge Mystic and we’re happy hitting either one in our opening hand, the odds now look like this:

Now we’ve graduated from hitting our key opener one in six times to hitting it just over one in four times. Over the course of our theoretical FNM, that’s 2-3 games, and in our theoretical PTQ, that’s about 5 games.

Naturally, the odds of a good Chancellor opening continue to increase as you expand the range of two drops that you’re happy to accelerate out on turn one. Keep in mind, of course, that all of these odds assume that you’re going to keep and mulligan hands with an emphasis on making sure you hit one or more copies of Chancellor.

A sideline of silliness

While we’re on the topic of best-case scenarios, consider this one:

About 4% of the time – that’s about one in twenty-five games – a deck that runs Chancellors, Vengevines, and Squadron Hawks will hit a hand with all three, letting you cast a first turn Hawk, search up his buddies, and pitch a Vengevine.

I would never recommend planning around a 4% chance, but I was curious about the odds and thought you might be as well.

How good is your upside, how bad is your downside?

Okay, enough numbers. Let’s settle back in on evaluating the “investment” itself. How good is our upside, and how disastrous is the downside?

That is, how do we balance the potential for a first-turn two drop with the “cost” of running a seven mana fatty?

Does my upside crush?

The first part of our “should we play this card?” question amounts to asking just how good our upside actually is. In thinking about questions like this, I sort of intuitively like to start from the best possibility and then see how far I actually am from there. When we’re asking about upside, the extreme case is “I use this card, I win.”

For example, [card]Splinter Twin[/card] and [card]Deceiver Exarch[/card] are “I win” cards in Splinter Twin combo decks. The deck is no longer a deck without them, and if you get access to both at the same time, you have the ability to win the game outright.

We’re a little removed from that case here. Our most plausible upside cases amount to “having a card a turn earlier than usual.” That’s nifty and all, but it doesn’t auto-win the game. However, it does actually do some things we might not otherwise foresee.

On the play, you pick up an extra turn before your opponent’s two-mana removal kicks in. That’s a free turn of Lotus Cobra, Fauna Shaman, and, critically, Stoneforge Mystic. As I expect we’ll see more and more in the near future, [card]Batterskull[/card]’s utility is going to be limited by the tendency to auto-kill your Mystics on sight, forcing you to cast it the old-fashioned way. Under normal circumstances, even if you’re on the play and your opponent only has [card]Doom Blade[/card]s as removal, your Stoneforge likely won’t live long enough to drop a Batterskull onto the battlefield with its activated ability.

In contrast, the one-turn bump-up from Chancellor means that you can reliably get access to that two-mana Batterskull, no problem…at least as long as your opponent’s removal is Doom Blade or [card]Go for the Throat[/card].

Similarly, Chancellor lets you duck [card]Mana Leak[/card]s even when you’re on the draw, so that your opponent can no longer count on damaging your creature-oriented tempo with Mana Leak.

So the upside is not crushing, but it’s actually pretty sweet, and perhaps better than we’d first considered. Effectively, the consequence of being one turn faster is not just “being one turn faster,” but also “getting an active turn off of a key creature.”

For the record, the sickest upside play came when I tested a RUG list featuring four copies of Chancellor of the Tangle. It looked like this:

Yeah.

But generally, the value of Chancellor’s upside may be summarized best as “one active turn of one of my two-mana creatures.” How good that is will for sure depend on your deck list, but it simplifies the question enough to give it serious thought.

Does my downside kill me?

So, that was the upside case. In contrast, the downside case is that you’re running a seven-mana 6/7 with vigilance and reach.

In other words, a big, dumb dude.

An expensive, big, dumb dude.

We don’t habitually run seven mana creatures in Standard. When we do, they’d better come with a horde of plant tokens ready to go big and crush our opponent. So on the face of it, the downside here could be summarized as “this is a dead card.”

Would you risk drawing a dead card for a 16-27% shot at a pretty solid upside?

Hm. Maybe not so much.

However.

In the Fauna Shaman case, one of the cute aspects of using Chancellor to power out a first-turn Shaman is that the Shaman can then discard the Chancellor to start its chain of activations. So acceleration plus discard fuel, all in one neat package. Lotus Cobra, Squadron Hawk, and Stoneforge Mystic don’t come with this neat built-in utility for the card.

But if you happen to be running a list like RUG, where you have Jace, the Mind Sculptor, you get to mitigate the card’s mid-game failings in another way, by stuffing it back in your deck and shuffling it away with a fetchland. This is more about limiting the harm of the card rather than the sort of “mild upside” that Chancellor represents for Fauna Shaman. However, it does mean that having a Chancellor in hand is very much like having a land you don’t need in hand, if you have an active Jace.

Notably, both RUG and [card]Vengevine[/card] decks are actually pretty good mana generators, so it’s also not unrealistic to end up casting the Chancellor…and the big guy is a 6/7 with vigilance and reach, meaning it can swing as a terror with a sword while it hangs back to swat Squadron Hawks out of the sky and devour Batterskulls.

Clearly, a seven-mana creature is still relatively unrealistic a lot of the time, so we need to ask whether our build can either use it (Fauna Shaman) or mitigate it (Jace). If we can’t, then it is likely to be a dead card too often, and the liability probably outweighs the value of having it in the deck.

Do we Tangle or not?

My final conclusion on using Chancellor is a qualified “this might be a good idea.” It demands more actual testing, of course, and can always be set aside should it fail the “would some other card be better?” test. But the general idea in evaluating just how good Chancellor can be as you design new decks and tweak existing designs should be to ask three questions:

How good are my potential upside plays?

Your upside plays should be game changers. Just being a turn faster is not enough – it’s about getting an uncontested Batterskull or Fauna Shaman activation.

How many upside plays do you have?

If you have four upside cards, you have about a 16% chance of hitting your play. With eight cards, that goes to 27%, and so forth. My inclination is to want at least that 27% so that this matters in a fourth of your games.

How do you limit the downside?

Is Chancellor always a dead card after turn one and before seven mana? Or can you filter it away via Jace, toss it to fuel Fauna Shaman, or somehow get other mid-game utility out of it? If you can’t do at least one of these things, it’s probably not worthwhile.

So there you go – the Chancellor can be powerful, but it has some hurdles to jump on its way there. I’ll keep these three questions in mind while I decide whether the big man is going into my lists, and recommend that you do the same.

What do you think? Have you tested any of the Chancellors in your Constructed builds? How did they play?

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magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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